South Carolina women’s basketball took Texas A&M’s best shot on Sunday afternoon and nearly stumbled, but in the end, the Gamecocks (12-1) emerged with a thrilling 61-59 win at Colonial Life Arena.
After trailing by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, USC stormed back early in the fourth, tying the game at 49 with 8:09 left in the game when sophomore Tyasha Harris lofted a high pass to senior A’ja Wilson near the basket. Wilson leapt, caught the ball and banked it in off the glass all in one motion.
But the Aggies (11-4) were not to be put away so easily. Led by junior guard Danni Williams and freshman sensation Chennedy Carter, A&M rallied to tie the game again, setting up a raucous finish that included two ties and two lead changes in the final two minutes.
With 31 seconds left to play and the game tied at 59, Carter, who scored 36 points to lead all scorers, committed a costly blunder, failing to bring the ball past halfcourt in 10 seconds, resulting in a turnover.
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On the ensuing possession, Wilson and junior guard Doniyah Cliney both missed shots, and a tipped rebound rolled down the court with Williams in perfect position to score the go-ahead layup with five seconds left in the game.
But she was whistled for a double-dribble, and the Gamecocks regained possession again. This time, Wilson, who ended the game with 25 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, did not miss, scoring the winning basket with less than two seconds left on the clock. A final desparate heave by Carter did not come close.
“This is my last first SEC game, so just to play like that, to get that bucket, it’s a great feeling,” Wilson said. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ But I had to remain calm for my teammates. But it definitely goes down as one of my favorite buckets.”
According to Staley, however, Wilson was not the team’s first option for the game’s final shot.
“With five seconds left, we wanted to try to get the ball inside to Alexis right away, and if we couldn’t get that, we told A’ja to stay soft in the corner and attack it with your left hand to the open paint,” Staley said.
The clutch final shot, however, elicited high praise from Staley.
“As for as A’ja Wilson, it’s bittersweet. I see a tremendous player who has developed into somebody who is really special. She’s reading the defense a lot quicker. She’s very complete. I don’t think there’s another player in the country like her from a collegiate or pro standpoint,” Staley said. “Her ability to dribble the basketball, consistently make outside shots, rebound the basketball on both sides of the court.”
Wilson accounted for three of South Carolina’s final four baskets, but she was not the only Gamecock to come up big down the stretch — Cliney was 3-for-5 from the field with an assist in the game’s final 10 minutes after going 4-for-12 through the first three quarters. She finished with 16 points, a career-high, and four rebounds.
“It was just all mental,” Cliney said of the change. “I had to tell myself I had to do something different. I knew I wasn’t hitting shots that I wanted to, but I knew taking it to the basket was one of my strengths, so I just went with it.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair praised Cliney’s performance, saying she was key to USC’s victory and played better than he had ever seen her play. He also called Wilson the “best player in the country.”
For a while, however, Cliney and USC looked extremely lost, and Dawn Staley’s third home loss in five years seemed likely, as Harris and Wilson spent a long stretch of the second quarter on the bench with two fouls, and the Gamecocks shot 21.5 percent from the field through the second and third quarters.
At halftime, USC had turned the ball over 14 times, more than the 12.7 it averaged per game entering the contest. But while the Gamecocks took care of the ball better in the second half, ending the contest with just 17 total turnovers, they had no answer for Carter, the nation’s top-scoring freshman, to start the third quarter. In those 10 minutes, she shot 8-for-12 from the field for 19 points, compared to 14 for all of USC.
“Our team just played really uncharacteristic of ourselves,” Staley said. “Carter ... she was having her way. And I just thought she was huffing and puffing, but she never really slowed down and she never really got out of rhythm.”
In the fourth quarter, however, Carter slowed dramatically and appeared fatigued, a fact both Staley and Blair credited to South Carolina’s aggressive full-court press that kept the Aggies off balance. Carter and A&M shot 28.6 percent in the game’s final 10 minutes.
“(It was) huge. It’s something that we’ve utilized throughout the first half of the season, so it was a matter of which press we wanted to go with, whether it was a three-quarter press or just a full-court press,” Staley said of the defensive shift. “I just asked (associate head coach Lisa) Boyer, what did she think we should do, and she said (full court) ... so we (pressed) them to try to get back into the game.”
South Carolina plays its first road conference game of the season against Ole Miss on Thursday at 7 p.m.